We sang this tonight in thanksgiving for the blessings of the year. May they continue and increase for you in 2012!

Messiaen’s Nativity

December 29, 2011

As I’ve probably made clear in previous years, non-hackneyed effusions of Christmas mean a lot to me, the more tinsel-bedecked having worn out its welcome by about adolescence. It was a joy last week to see a Twitter that ran

I heard some hypnotizing Messiaen organ business in Westminster Abbey on Sunday. Visceral is the word.

Now comes this refreshing account of the same repertory as in the Abbey’s “Messiaen organ business” — this time in San Francisco (and, coincidentally, by a performer whom I first met when we were both much younger and he was playing in Westminster Abbey).

Since some of my own most memorable musical experiences have come from walking around a darkened church while a colleague played, I’ve often thought of how that experience might be created for others in a non-conventional concert. The linked article confirms for me that it could work.

There seems to be no end to the Mozart Makes You Better saga. When I was at Sony Classical, we tried to convince people to play our Mozart recordings to their babies. I’d be content to see a campaign that actually convinced the whole population that Mozart Couldn’t Hurt as a Replacement for Reality TV.

But leave it to the Austrians and Germans to carry the message to microbes. Also, more about it in German, here.

Via Alex Ross and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A Christmas Liszt

December 23, 2011


Over the years I’ve accumulated a large repertory of Christmas organ works that have been more or less rotated through the annual celebrations that I’ve played for. After a few years of not doing much along that line, I decided this year, when I’m playing a Midnight Mass and two on Christmas Day, to come up with new-to-me — and possibly novel-to-others — music.

When I practiced this morning, I turned on my laptop recorder so that I could see what some of the pieces sounded like when not playing. When I got home and listened, I thought, “I haven’t done anything for the Liszt Bicentennial, so maybe I’ll post this odd little piece.” It may be worthwhile to post even this comparatively crude recording, since it’s Franz Liszt as you may not know him. This is no Hungarian Rhapsody or Les Preludes. It’s Liszt in a purposely naïve vein — composing for a granddaughter, as it happens. He has taken a 14th-century German carol, “In dulci jubilo,” added a classic German cradle-song ostinato, and somewhat contradicted the lullaby affect by his periodic markings of staccato and even marcato that make for comparatively rough rocking. But perhaps the reason why can be found in his title. Shepherds may not be the most gentle of nurses:

Dir Hirten an der Krippe (The Shepherds at the Crib) from Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree), for piano or organ.


You can get it, read the liner notes, and hear the first track here.

In honor of the 242nd year since his birth, I herewith offer one of the greatest moments in Beethoven’s entire, varied output. It’s the quartet in Fidelio that gives us many things rare in opera. For one thing, we have four people in a non-comedy singing at once, all of whom are actually good — who are meant to endear themselves to us for various reasons. Here Beethoven does some things that are very difficult to do — and impossible for almost everyone else.

First, he has characters sing the same music while having contrasting thoughts. He does this by having the music that they share portray not their specific meditations but the moment itself. The latter is common to all of them; and, while there are subtleties in the orchestra and, later on, certain passing harmonic events that portray some incidental disunity of the sort that all human interaction is prone to, the music does something that was not possible by other means until the invention of cinema: we have a quadripartite split screen, as it were.

The second extremely difficult hurdle that he clears is that of having the performers switch from speaking to singing without seeming jarringly unrealistic. In fact, he makes being unrealistic the point (cf. split screen, above), and the almost mystical suspension of time is immediately effected by the orchestral introduction (with it harmony replete with suspensions of another sort — most effective when interpreters have the good sense to rein in the vibrato here, thus keeping the harmonies poignant). Even for those who don’t understand the German words, this transition can be powerful, as here at Glyndebourne:  

So intensely felt by performers, by us — but first by Beethoven!

And that feeling can survive very different specifics of interpretations: this very slow tempo that Bernstein takes perhaps “should not” work. There seems too much chance of losing the contrapuntal coherence that is so key to the whole. But the wonderful clarity of the performance more than compensates, and (as with the composition in the first place) what “shouldn’t” work did work marvelously well in this Vienna performance:

The idea, too prevalent lately and drilled into us by the most intense marketing, that music drama depends on Broadway-style direction and that the operatic past was all fat people singing with their hands outstretched, is evidently ignorant of performances like this one from Berlin in 1963. Instead of contradicting the music with ingenious but irrelevant directorial inventions, the singers might be said to act the drama by acting the music (which, as I’ve emphasized, Beethoven had already made entirely dramatic):

Heaven protect us from a director who would surround such a moment with busy action to “keep it interesting”!

And I add one other performance of the scene, this one from Switzerland, for its sheer gorgeousness:

Many of us were taught that Fidelio is a relative failure as an opera — before we ever had a chance to become familiar with its actual attributes. I pity people who can hear it in a fine performance and think so.

A Little Carried Away?

December 13, 2011

“An opera is far more real than real life to me … I wish that life was an opera. I should like to live in one.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

At the very least I’d choose my role very carefully.

As Fred Child puts it via Twitter, “If he can live 103 yrs (and counting!) we can spend 6 minutes watching the ever-spunky Elliott Carter: here.”

And here‘s Carter on his early years, prohibition, and Boulanger.